The thump of jackhammers and the whine of drills pierce the air. Above the river a concrete wall is slowly rising.
In lush, north-eastern Cambodia, the £530m Lower Sesan 2 Dam stands as a potent symbol of China’s growing reach, and Beijing’s ambitious plans to expand its influence throughout Asia by building some desperately needed infrastructure.
But almost 5,000 people are likely to be evicted from their villages when the dam’s reservoir fills, and 40,000 living along the banks of the Sesan and Srepok rivers stand to lose most of the fish they rely on for food. Yet this dam project is part of a much larger Chinese ambition: President Xi Jinping is making a bold move, billed as the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, to restore what he sees as Beijing’s historic place at the centre of Asia.
Mr Xi is working behind the scenes to surpass the United States as Asia’s regional power. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cambodia, a country that has found itself drawn into China’s orbit and lured away from the West with the promise of easy money, offered with no strings attached, for roads, bridges and dams.
“Without infrastructure, you can’t revive,” said Cambodia’s Commerce Minister, Sun Chanthol. “We have been blamed for always going to China, but it is because we need infrastructure fast, nothing more than that. Are there any conditions put on Cambodia by China? I can tell you: absolutely nothing. No conditions at all.”
China's territorial disputes
China's territorial disputes
1/5 South China Sea
A satellite image of what is claimed to be an under-construction airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea
2/5 South China Sea
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef
3/5 South China Sea
A Chinese Guided Missile Frigate Hengshui docked at a port in Yalong Bay in Sanya, south China's Hainan Province. China's military compared its controversial island reclamation project in the South China Sea to ordinary construction going on in other parts of the country, such as the building of roads and apartments
4/5 South China Sea
The alleged on-going land reclamation of China at Subi reef is seen from Pagasa island (Thitu Island) in the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines
5/5 South China Sea
U.S. military forces aboard Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) manuevre on South China Sea near the shore of San Antonio, Zambales during the annual "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games with Filipino soldiers in northern Philippines. The U.S. Marine Corps is bringing together foreign commanders from amphibious forces deployed mostly in the Asia-Pacific for a conference aimed at taking initial steps to integrate their operations, with China excluded from the event, according to officials and planning documents
Mr Xi says he wants to restore ancient trading routes, to create a new “Maritime Silk Road” through the seas of Southern Asia and a new “Silk Road Economic Belt” across the deserts and mountains of Central Asia. Beijing’s plans are already unfolding across the region, with China simultaneously making new friends, and new enemies, as it spreads its wings.
Cambodia emerged in ruins from the chaos of the Vietnam War and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Now at peace, its economy is growing fast but is in desperate need of transport infrastructure and power. China is stumping up the cash, with none of the tiresome conditions the World Bank attaches to its lending, Cambodian officials say, and none of the complaints about human rights that emanate elsewhere. There is not even much concern about corruption.
Yet in the villages around the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, the drawbacks of this Chinese largesse soon become apparent. Typically, it is being brokered by the two nations’ elites with little consideration of local communities.
With the threatened loss of most of the rivers’ fisheries because the dam will block key migration routes, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians could feel the impact. It is, a study suggests, the most damaging of dozens of dams proposed on the Mekong’s tributaries in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos between now and 2030. Yet the dam’s environmental assessment reports have failed to take this into account, and the project includes no compensation for lost fish stocks.
In the small village of Phluk, just downstream from the dam site, fishermen who stand in the river casting their nets say dynamite used by Chinese engineers – as well as murky, cement-filled waters flowing from the construction site – have already significantly depressed catches.
“There are no more big fish; we can’t make any money from fishing any more,” said Uta Khami, a 54-year-old father of seven. “My father first took me fishing when I was 12. My family survived because of the fish from this river. I regret this so much, it almost takes my breath away.”
The majority investor in the project is China’s state-owned HydroLancang, in partnership with Cambodia’s Royal Group, whose owner, Kith Meng, was once described in a leaked US embassy cable as a “ruthless gangster”.
But the dam is far from the only Chinese project in Cambodia to generate a backlash. Cambodian civil society groups cite a 90,000-acre land concession to China’s Union Development Group to build an international trade and eco-tourism centre on Cambodia’s south-western coast.
The project has seen thousands of people forcibly evicted, given inadequate compensation and resettled on poor-quality land, in poor houses, with limited access to electricity, clean water or toilets, according a report by the NGO Forum on Cambodia.
Kung Phoak, president of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, says China suffers a “severe deficit of trust”, not just in Cambodia but throughout the region. China has a habit of dealing with Cambodia’s corrupt elite, he says.
Although the nation’s democracy is deeply flawed, Mr Kung says that nonetheless “the government is now very responsive to public opinion, and the people remain deeply sceptical and suspicious of China’s various activities”.
While many Cambodians complain that Chinese roads are poorly built they serve a purpose. Two decades ago, the journey from Phnom Penh to the north-eastern town of Stung Treng took four days: now, thanks to a Chinese road, it takes about seven hours.
“There is a bridge here, and a road now, and they are two very important things,” said Dy Polen, a restaurant owner. “Yes, the bridge is cracking, and I do care about quality, but it is better than before.”
Even opposition leader Sam Rainsy said he considers China to be an important counterbalance to larger neighbours Thailand and Vietnam.
“It is difficult to resist Vietnamese influence without a counterweight from China.”
In the village of Srae Kor, hand-painted signs on wooden houses proclaim the determination of many residents not to leave their homes, even when the Lower Sesan 2 Dam’s reservoir fills and the floodwaters rise.
“I prefer to die in my village and remain with my ancestors,” said 62-year-old La Thoeu. “The river is my life. I live a happy life. I catch fish. I will not leave this place.”
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